World Humanitarian Day 2009

WHDIt’s World Humanitarian Day today. You may not have realised this. That’s probably for two reasons.

1) You don’t work for the UN

2) It’s never been held before

Without mincing words, World Humanitarian Day is designed to highlight the work of humanitarian workers and operations around the world, joining a long and prestigious list of other international awareness events in the calendar for the globally-minded which raise awareness around issues of international concern such as HIV/AIDS (World Aids Day- December 1), the environment (Earth Day- April 22 (US) or March 20 (UN)), breast cancer (which gets the entire month of October for National Breast Cancer Awarenss Month) , and pirates (International Talk Like a Pirate Day- Arrrr, September 19, me hearties).

Wait. That was a real word-mince.

The day aims to remember and honour humanitarian workers who have been killed or seriously injured in the name of bringing assistance to people in need around the world, and to highlight the ongoing humanitarian plights globally that continue, most of them largely out of sight of public awareness. According to a Humanitarian Policy Group report published by the Overseas Development Institute, 2008 saw the most attacks against aid workers since the industry began, with increasing trends towards the politicisation of attacks, and the kidnapping of expatriates for ransom in many parts of the world. It is now statistically more dangerous to work as a humanitarian worker than it is to be a UN Peacekeeping soldier.

I should have joined the army.

On August 19 2003, the humanitarian world was changed forever. An Iraqi truck bomber drove into the UN headquarters in Baghdad and blew himself up, together with 22 humanitarian workers, including the UN’s representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. While not the first time aid workers had been targeted, this was the first time the UN had been directly attacked, and marked a shift in perception that aid workers were no longer neutral contributors to the innocent needy, but had become a part of the political landscape and, by inference, a legitimate target in conflict. A few weeks later, the sentiment was reinforced when the Red Cross headquarters was similarly bombed. Within twelve months, nearly all humanitarian operations inside Iraq, helping millions of displaced people, had been suspended for security reasons.

I remember the morning of the 19th quite well. I had only been working in the industry for a few months at that time, but I remember coming in to a very quiet office here in Melbourne. A friend and team-mate was based in Baghdad at the time, and people hearing the news had been instantly concerned for him. In the event, he was fine. He had left the UN building just an hour prior to the bombing, however, and I’m sure he remembers the day far more vividly than I do.

As an aid worker I’ve been very lucky, in that I haven’t lost any personal friends to violence in the field. Many of my own friends and colleagues have not been so lucky. Although the numbers of aid workers killed in the line of duty is relatively small (in 2008, 122 aid workers were killed, 76 injured and 62 kidnapped), we’re a small community.

The saddest issue perhaps centres on the fact that aid workers are now being increasingly deliberately targeted. Issues of impartiality and humanitarian space (both of which I have, or will, discuss elsewhere) have clouded our landscape. Factions with grievances and guns see us as part of the problem, not necessarily as a solution. Countries wreacked by chronic insecurity (what we once called civil war) such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan, are particularly difficult places to work. Last week a team of ours flew back into central Somalia after being evacuated for security reasons. Within four days of their return, a neighbouring humanitarian compound had been attacked and three people killed (for once, the attackers). Kidnapping international aid workers in these places is now a fantastic revenue stream for armed groups struggling to raise money to buy weapons and explosives. It’s often hard to see where political insurgence ends and profiteering begins.

I’ve also been lucky in that I have survived my own run-in with targeted violence in the field, and in a situation where, looking at the circumstances, I probably shouldn’t have come away unscathed. That, too, is subject of another post. But on this World Humanitarian Day, when we think of aid workers who have been injured or killed in the line of duty, I think of my three colleagues with me in the car that day nearly two years ago, Mohammed, Essam and Abdul-Rahman, all of whom were shot and wounded. While two have made full recoveries, the third continues to struggle with a lasting physical disability as a result of the incident. While we are all grateful to be alive, he in particular will continue to carry the scars of his decision to work to help people in need.

One of the biggest challenges we face in the humantarian world is the sheer lack of awareness of what is happening in the wider world. Unless (like me) you’re a relief junkie, most people tend to switch off their minds and their tv sets once news of wars and catastrophes comes on. Not natural disasters, mind. Big earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis get people excited. They watch, they’re interested, they’re sympathetic. But start talking about fighting in northern Uganda or unrest in Guinea, and they’ll quickly glaze over. This isn’t a criticism per se. People can only take so much of this sort of thing. But it makes our job- finding the resources to help an already desperate situation- so much harder. These situations of ongoing violence we refer to as “Chronic Humanitarian Emergencies” or, in our hip three-letter-acronym parlance for which the industry is so renowned, CHEs. And it doesn’t take too long for these CHEs to transition into the pool of what we refer to as the ‘forgotten’ emergencies.

Refugee Children

These include places such as:

Democratic Republic of Congo- Fighting in the east of the country since 1997- an ethnic conflict spilled over from the 1994 Rwanda Genocide- has claimed more lives than any conflict since the Second World War, and hundreds of thousands of people continue to live in camps for displaced people, or fear for their lives in remote forest villages.

Chad- Hundreds of thousands of people displaced from fighting across the border in Sudan’s Darfur region continue to live in the camps they have been stuck in since 2002 and 2003, in desperately harsh conditions in the desert and facing the threat of violence from local militia groups- one of the world’s most desperate situations.

Northern Uganda- A combination of ethnic rivalries fighting over cattle and a brutal insurgency lead by the bloody Lord’s Resistance Army has left thousands dead, mostly the innocent. While the LRA has moved northwards into southern Sudan, insecurity between ethnic groups remains in the eastern Karamoja district, and the region remains critically poor and isolated.

Sri Lanka- A little under three hundred thousand ethnic Tamils have been displaced by fighting earlier this year into government-run displaced people camps which are more like detention centres- including the infamous Menik Farm camp, the largest such camp in the world today. Largely lacking in personal freedoms or any quality of life, the displaced people have been exposed to horrendous violence and repeated population movements over the last couple of years, but are still being treated with suspicion and like second-class citizens by their own government, and aid workers still have only limited access to them to meet their needs- in contravention of a ream of international standards.

Afghanistan- Nearly eight years on from the US-led invasion following the September 11 bombings, Afghanistan is a country that continues to be wreacked by ethnic unrest and political rivalries. A country that has effectively been in a state of chronic warfare since a Soviet-backed coup in 1978, rebuilding efforts have been tragically slow, and insecurity (including repeated attacks on aid workers) is currently on the rise again. The country is currently undergoing its first stab at democratic elections- a pivotal time in its history- but with the ongoing violence and staggering levels of political corruption, it’s unlikely very much satisfaction will be drawn from the endeavour.

Pakistan- One of the largest and most rapid people displacements in recent history went largely under-reported in international press earlier this year when, with tacit approval from western powers, the Pakistani government launched a military campaign to shore up the tribal regions near the Afghan border, ostensibly to root out Islamic extremism. Millions of people were displaced in a matter of weeks by violence which included shelling and aerial bombardment, and several months on, only a portion have been able to return home, while fresh displacements continue to occur on a monthly basis. Saddest of all, any gains the military might have taken by force will be more than offset by the alienation of the citizens impacted by the fighting.

Iraq- This one needs no real introduction, suffice to say that six years since the end of the campaign to overthrow President Hussein, Iraq is a country struggling to hold itself together, and while some security gains have been made, millions of people remain in need of basic services, including hundreds of thousands of ‘forgotten’ Iraqis displaced into other middle eastern countries, where they lack basic rights and access to services.

Darfur- One of the most complex and violent corners of the world, since a 2003 insurgency against the government took hold, releasing a counter-insurgency of ethnic cleansing and burning villages, hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have died and millions displaced. Up to two thirds of the 6 million strong population require outside assistance to live, while at last count nearly thirty different armed factions were battling for control of the region.

Southern Sudan- Emerging from the better part of forty years of internal conflict with northern Sudan in 2005 which claimed two million lives and saw millions more flee its borders, Southern Sudan remains one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions on the face of the planet. Gripped by long-standing ethnic rivalries, violence continues to disrupt development efforts and the political process, which is due to come to a head in 2011 with a referendum on whether or not to join with northern Sudan or seek independence- a move which in and of itself could trigger a new civil war.

Central African Republic- Bordering southern Sudan, Chad and DRC, the CAR never really had a chance. Hosting displaced people from other nations, as well as ethnic unrest of its own, CAR is the archetypal ‘forgotten emergency’- few people even know the country exists, far less anything about it, and there is little humanitarian support to help tens of thousands of displaced people living in harsh conditions.

Somalia- Since the ousting of its President in 1991, Somalia has seen little but violent militia-led warfare since. An abortive US military incursion on the back of a flailing UN assistance operation did nothing to endear the western world to the Somali community, and Somalia has since become one of the most dangerous and difficult locations in the world for aid delivery. The latest iteration of the violence comes on the back of an ill-thought-through Ethiopian operation to quell the rise of Islamic extremism, with the result that Al Shabbab, a conservative and violent group, now controls large swathes of the southern part of the country. Fighting continues to claim lives on a weekly basis, while millions of people remain in acute need of external support which can only periodically reach them.

On the right-hand side of this post, among the clutter, is a list of websites of humanitarian agencies, most of whom have operations in most of these crises. For those that feel motivated to respond in some financial way, I’d never presume to suggest what you should do with your money, but please consider these organizations as a starting point for your thinking. For those that pray, please pray for the people who are affected by these crises around the world, that their lives and wellbeing would be preserved, and for the humanitarian workers who help them, that they might have the wisdom and the integrity to use the resources they have as effectively as possible. Finally, I know that many people, when reading this sort of information, feel a desire to help more practically, for example through volunteering. For those that are genuinely interested in bringing their personal and professional skills to a career in humanitarian work, fantastic. For those curious about more short-term voluntary work, I’d like to recommend to you a rather interesting series of posts on the subject by my friend and fellow blogger J., who raises a lot of the complexities and controversies around this. Not to discourage, only to inform.

You can also count on J. for all sorts of other articulate and thought-provoking insights into the world of humanitarian work. And some highly amusing and frivolous ones as well. I highly recommend his pages to you if this is you area of interest.

He’s also a lot more concise than I am.

Thanks for your time today.

Split Peas & Maize

2 comments on “World Humanitarian Day 2009

  1. Pingback: World Humanitarian Day 2010: The Ambush (Part I of 3) « WanderLust

  2. Pingback: Down on the Ground « whirlwind adventures

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